I have an ornate glass wine decanter that sits in the center of my kitchen table at all times, like a permanent decoration–it never leaves its spot unless I’m cleaning it. I’m strict about keeping it on the table because nearly all of the wines that I drink taste better with a little aeration, and it’s easy to forget this important step when the decanter is tucked away in a cabinet. Some collectors assume that they should only decant wine if it’s mature or expensive (like a vintage DRC). The reality is that many wines improve with some decanting, even inexpensive grocery store labels. To find out how long you should decant wine, you have to follow your eyes and nose, consider the bottle’s age, and make an estimate based on the varietal.
How to Tell Whether a Wine Needs Decanting
To determine how long you should decant wine, you need to understand the two chemical processes at work.
First, decanting wine allows the wine’s sediment to sink to the base of the decanter before you pour it into a glass. As a wine ages, solid particles of sediment naturally separate from the liquid and fall to the bottom of the bottle. However, when you take that bottle off the rack and uncork it, you disturb the sediment, and it mixes in with the rest of the wine. Because this sediment has a bitter taste, serious wine enthusiasts pour the entire bottle into a decanter before serving the wine, letting the sediment sink back down to the bottom. Hold your bottle up to the light and look for thick areas of sediment as the liquid inside moves; the more sediment you see, the longer you need to decant. I recommend checking on the wine every 30 minutes, and serving the wine only when all of the sediment has reached the bottom. This process usually takes about an hour, sometimes more.
Second, when you expose wine to the air in a decanter, oxidation “blows off” some of the unpleasant aromatics in the wine, and opens up the more desirable notes. For instance, high-end white Burgundy tends to smell like burnt matches when you first uncork the bottle (Domaine Leflaive in particular is well-known for this phenomenon). If you smell burnt matches, try decanting the wine for 30 minutes, and continue decanting until the smell dissipates. Usually, smells like this will soften in less than an hour. Additionally, if you taste a wine and find that it’s a bit too bland or one-note in flavor, let it sit in the decanter for about an hour. The more the wine makes contact with the air, the more aromatics are released, which improve the way the wine tastes (since so much of taste is dependent on aroma). This is why professional wine reviewers swirl their wine glasses–they want the wine to become as aromatic as possible.
Bottle Age Matters
Before you decant a bottle of 1975 Haut-Brion, you should know that age impacts how well a wine will hold together inside of a decanter. The older a wine is, the less time it can safely spend decanting. This is because mature wines start to lose their intense fruit flavors and their aromatics over time; any exposure to air will speed up this flavor loss. I recommend decanting wines that are at 20 years old or older for less than 30 minutes, at most. Older wines that naturally have more intensity (like California Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeaux) can withstand longer air exposure in a decanter, whereas lighter wines (like Pinot Noir or most Burgundy vintages), can’t tolerate much decanting at all. If you need to remove sediment from a bottle of mature wine, only decant it until the sediment sinks to the bottom, and for no more than 30 minutes. Alternatively, a younger wine (fewer than 20 years old) can sit in a decanter for as long as four hours without losing its youthful flavors.
Approximating Decanting Times by Varietal
The best way to determine how long you should decant wine is by smelling or tasting the wine first, however, you can also make an educated guess based on the varietal’s characteristics. Here are a few of the most common average decanting times based on the type of wine you have:
- High-Tannin, Bold Reds: Decant intense, tight wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Barolo for about two hours (unless they are more than 20 years old or already taste superb).
- Young Light Reds: Decant lighter reds like Pinot Noir and Gamay for 30 minutes to one hour, if you feel they need it, and taste often to ensure you’re not losing flavor.
- Table Wine: Cheap grocery store reds can usually withstand as much as four hours of decanting, while whites can handle about an hour or two–taste test the wine every 30 minutes until it starts to open up.
- Rich, Bold Whites: Decant bolder white wines like Chardonnay for about one hour.
- Light Whites: Decant light white wines like Pinot Grigio for only a few minutes at a time, up to a maximum of 30 minutes.
- Champagne: You can actually decant Champagne, however, keep your decanting times under one hour, and follow this detailed guide to prevent spoilage.
Using these guidelines, and decanting many of the wines I drink, I’ve coaxed even the cheapest grocery store table wine into tasting better than average. Decanting can’t fix a wine that’s truly flawed, but it can vastly improve the complexity of flavors in the bottle, allowing you to more thoroughly enjoy your collection.
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Image by atl10trader (Flickr: 1989 Travels to 2009) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons